Sunday, June 3, 2007

Clive and Prejudice

Clive James's New Yorker article on crime fiction seems to have set the cat among the proverbials.  Those provoked by his provocative article might be provoked even more by the slightly different, and rather blunter, version that appears on his website

Clearly, entertaining as the article is, I don't agree with James's conclusions.  But, as the lady more or less said, I wouldn't, would I?  However, I'm still intrigued by the suggestion, which I don't really think James follows through, that there are fundamental differences between genre fiction and 'literary' fiction (I'll leave the definition of the latter to someone else).  I think this is right.  If nothing else, genre fiction almost inevitably operates in a context of conventions and reader expectations.  Think of those tiresome lists of the 'rules' that crime writers should follow.  It's possible to subvert the conventions - the late Michael Dibden was a master of such subversion - but that has to be a conscious act.  And it's often in the face of reader resistance.  If you doubt that, take a look at the mixed Amazon reader reviews of Dibden's delightful Back to Bologna

But these conventions also impose discipline.  Crime writers are compelled to plot tightly and, by definition, to engage with big themes and intense emotions.  Those who do it best - from Raymond Chandler to Peter Temple - produce fiction with an intensity and energy that's rarely found in contemporary 'literary' fiction. 

At the risk of drifting (further) into pretentiousness, and to take an analogy that Clive James the poet or lyricist might appreciate, perhaps it's the difference between writing a sonnet and writing free-verse.  In theory, there are limits to what you can do with a sonnet, whereas the potental of free verse is infinite.  But most free verse is unreadable, and the best sonnets are transcendent. 

By the way, did I mention that the paperback of The Shadow Walker is out in the UK today (3 May)?


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